Nartaki Natraj echoes Guru Kittappa Pillai's soft spot for equilibrium.
Now she is the mother who croons to the infant, next she metamorphoses into the infant who pouts and demands the impossible: the moon on a platter! The rasika is left amazed at her articulate abhinaya, firm yet graceful nritta and the innate joy she radiates with her dancing. The dancer is Nartaki Natraj at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Attired in a white and green costume, she captures the mood poetically visualised by Subramania Bharati in ‘Chinnan Chiru Kiliye.' No wonder that Nartaki has fans among the urban and rural folk, in India and abroad.
I meet her the next day at her simple yet neat residence in Mylapore. “My Guru Kittappa Pillai would say that Bharatanatyam is a Lalita Kalai – the viewer should come away with a sense of joy and peace,” observes Nartaki when I query her on her approach to dance. This time around she is in a white churidhar and projects the same sense of refinement as on stage.
She continues “I am like a wild plant, which is nurtured by the winds of fate. In my village and especially in my conservative family dancing was taboo. In my early years when my sense of self and my identity was a matter of torment for me and my family, I would take refuge in dancing.
“I was irresistibly drawn to dancing and in those difficult years I performed to the songs I had seen from cinema which had the classical touch. I would dance at temple festivals, fairs and had no answer when asked who my guru was,” she elaborates.
“Dance was a matter for survival,” Nartaki amplifies. “I would perform on the sly, keeping my prizes and medals which I won in competitions hidden from the family. Sakthi (Sakthi Bhaskar) and I faced enormous opposition from society at every stage,” She recalls gravely.
And she continues: “Sakthi has been my thozhi from age five. My Guru held that not all students could perform onstage. He advised Sakthi to support me ‘behind scenes' as it were. Today she is my adviser and critic. In fact, she can recall the exact number of repetitions for the lines of a song even when I may not! In my early days when I despaired that I could not afford to wear gold jewellery onstage, she boosted my morale by saying that the art was more important than the getup.”
She recalls the visit to the temple at Tirumogur. “The deity Kalamega Perumal dons the Mohini Avatar there. There is the custom that families bring children like Sakthi and me there for ‘Samashanam.' In a nutshell this can be called a sacred rite where the conch and discus - the symbols of Lord Vishnu are branded on the devotee.” She translates her experience with all the intensity and bliss of an ardent devotee in a performance revolving round Divya Prabhandam.
So how did she come under the tutelage of such a great Guru?
“It was fate which brought me to my illustrious guru. Initially I was guided by brothers Ramanur Jayaraman and Madurai T.G. Jayaraman in Madurai. I yearned to train under a Guru who had shaped eminent dancers. In 1984, I came to Thanjavur with Sakthi and requested Guru Kittappa Pillai to teach Bharatanatyam. To our great disappointment he turned us away.
“But I did not give up. Many, many requests later – indeed only after a year did he accept me as his disciple. Those were hard days, I would wonder if he had turned us away because of our ‘other'ness… but ultimately I had the great fortune to come under his wing.”
She recalls the first class vividly. “I felt elated to be in the very same hall where many great artists had learnt and practised. From then onwards till his death in 1999, I was his sishya shadowing him everywhere. All the taunts and all the hurdles I had faced fuelled my urge to learn. In the first year itself I had progressed from adavus and completed an entire margam. No mean task, considering that these were intricate compositions taught over extensive sessions.”
What does she treasure from those days?
“My Guru's vision of dancing. He firmly held that everything ought to be in the right proportion. Speed, ‘azhuthum', manner of delivery – all had to have the right equilibrium. He abhorred anything in excess and this sense of exquisite balance is what my art is all about today.”
What is her viewpoint on creativity? “When I compose dance for songs I uphold what was taught to me. I strive to communicate the ‘anandam' of the art. I don't believe in any flashy razzle-dazzle or gimmicks to impress. Right from my student days, I was drilled with the value of this unique heritage and if I am accused of being old fashioned, well so be it!” she declares. “I do not oppose contemporary themes; I feel that it is not for me.”
Nartaki has travelled and performed abroad and has a significant following of students from many countries. How does she tackle teaching them? “First I ask them whether they have seen me perform and know the background. If they are hesitant I tell them to look me up on the net and then come back only if they are convinced.”
She adds humorously “I often say that at the end of my classes my students pick up not only my dance but also Tamil!”
The Nritya Choodamani award that will be bestowed on her by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on …. is an acknowledgement of her talent and hard work. What does she have to say on this. “I owe it all to my Guru. Fate guided me to him and my teacher has led me here.”
After a pause, she adds, “If there is a message for up-and-coming artists from my life it is this: If Nartaki can do it so can they.”